County Mayor Gary Cordell recently floated the idea to Manchester city officials about the city buying Coffee County’s portion of the Manchester-Coffee County Conference Center (MCCCC).
The idea is just that – a possibility put on the table for discussion. It is not yet up for an official vote by either the Manchester Board of Mayor and Alderman or the Coffee County Commission.
If the city did buy out the county’s portion, this would mean Manchester would inherit all financial responsibly and would be the sole entity to oversee the center’s business.
The Public Building Authority (PBA), which owns and operates the MCCCC, is a county entity. The county has the authority to appoint board members. According to the agreement between Coffee County and Manchester City, signed on Nov. 21, 2000, the two parties agreed to fund on an equal basis the construction and operation of the conference center. According to the contract, upon completion of the construction, “legal title to the real property, improvements located thereon, and the personal property located within the conference center shall be transferred to and vest to the Public Building Authority.” The 2018 audit report on the PBA, completed by the Winchester accounting firm of Bean, Rhoten & Kelly, PLLC, also states “the PBA owns and operates” the center.
Cordell’s offer received a less than warm reception from Manchester city officials.
“Those people did this in good faith, went through all the process, went back and forth and back and forth about building it, not building it,” said Manchester Vice Mayor Bill Nickels, referring to the construction conference center. “With good reason at the time, people decided to build it, we decided to build it, you and I. I want to honor that agreement. It’s only got three years more to go until it’s paid off.”
He later added, “Those people came up with that agreement that day and I trust them still. They were good people trying to do the best they could do and I’m sure it was not a 100 percent unanimous decision in the community to have it. Not everybody gets to take advantage of it and I get that. A lot of people have never set foot in that building, a lot of citizens, but that’s just part of government. A lot of people don’t have kids in the school system and still pay for the school in their taxes.”
Nickels said he knows the conference center was never designed to make money, but the county isn’t viewing it like it does the recreation complex or schools, which aren’t in the city to make money, but to improve quality of life.
When the proposal to build the center was brought before county and city officials in 2000, it was projected that losses could “possibly be from $25,000 to $26,000 a year,” according to minutes of the November 2000 meeting of the Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen. However, the operating losses have significantly exceeded these numbers, and since opening its doors in 2002, it has lost about $3 million, with half of those losses occurring since 2015.
“If it’s such a good thing, why don’t we sell our part to the county?” asked Alderman Bob Bellamy.
Nickels said the MCCCC is the city’s responsibility and he would like to honor the current agreement. According to the agreement signed Nov. 21, 2000, the PBA shall operate the center following acquisition and “net profit and losses attributable to the operations of the center, both in acquisition and operation thereafter” shall be shared equally between the county and the City of Manchester.
The agreement further states, “this venture shall continue for an initial term of years necessary to liquidate and pay the bond indebtedness incurred by the Public Building Authority for the acquisition of the conference center and personal property used in conjunction therewith…” The bonds used to fund the construction are set to be paid off in 2021. The total cost of the project was $3.5 million, $1.75 million apiece for the county and city.
“It is a service for the city and county. I think we need to keep both parties in the good will,” said Alderman Marilyn Howard.
Howard added she is not in favor of taking Cordell up on his offer, citing the anticipated residential expansion in Manchester and the city’s need to upgrade its schools.
“Do we want to take on that debt and keep it going? Are we that strong?” she questioned. “Those schools and subdivisions are being built. Those schools are coming, something has to be done to those schools, so we have to keep that in mind. Keep in mind when you make these plans, don’t neglect our schools.”
Bellamy agreed he was also not in favor of buying out the county and would rather have the county buy the city’s portion or leave the arrangement as it is.
County’s point of view
Cordell was the one to put the idea on the table. Selling off the county portion would be “prudent and resourceful” to county taxpayers, he said.
“The county has never made a profit on that, I don’t know that we ever will,” Cordell said. “I’m trying to look at ways to be more responsible, slight decrease in property tax … trying to be creative and responsible to our citizens.”
He believes Manchester, in time, would have more opportunity to make money on the center than the county ever would.
County officials have said that even though the center operates in the red, Manchester benefits from its operation by way of hotel-motel tax collections. Events held at the center translate into visitors to Coffee County, who pay the 6 percent city hotel tax, assuming they stay in a hotel. There is not currently a hotel tax levied by the county in Manchester City.
“Going forward after the thing is paid for, maybe the City of Manchester can make any money on it,” Cordell said.